America's top Afghanistan watchdog just gave an epic speech about intervention


Whenever I need a reminder of how dysfunctional the most powerful government in the world can be, I look in my inbox.

There, almost weekly, I get reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR for short. In the regular audits the watchdog department issues, there exists every kind of outrageous waste of taxpayer dollars. Millions in USAID funds pouring into schools that don’t exist. A $355 million power plant that only produces 1% of its energy potential for the Kabul metropolitan area. A failed Afghan refugee program into which the U.S. has poured nearly a billion dollars.

Overall, the office has “conducted 883 investigations, resulting in 103 arrests, 136 criminal charges, 100 convictions or guilty pleas, 78 sentencings, and savings of over $944.5 million,” as John F. Sopko, the office’s top administrator, told students in a speech at the the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University on Tuesday.

In the speech, Sopko sounded the alarm on what he calls the “disaster” that happens when officials who implement and oversee foreign aid programs “fail to distinguish fact from fantasy, or output from outcome and impact, and operate in a world where personal accountability is nearly nonexistent.”

Getting the whole foreign aid and reconstruction of failed foreign states thing right is important to learn now, he said, “because I predict we will be doing this again,” alluding to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and “any myriad number of African and mid-Eastern states.”

If that’s the case, there is no better learning experience than the petri dish that is Afghanistan. To date, the U.S. has dropped $110 billion just on reconstruction of the nation. Add to that over a decade of war—the U.S.’s longest war to date, which actually marks its 14th anniversary today—and the U.S. has dropped over $1 trillion into the project. Plus, of course, more than 2,500 American lives have been lost.

We must never forget that human rights cannot afford to be lost in the fog of war. — John F. Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

The biggest issue facing all the efforts in the nation, Sopko said, is that there haven’t been enough conditions placed on the aid we give to the Afghan government. It’s often an afterthought.

In the speech, Sopko noted that a prominent U.S. commander in Afghanistan told him that until he started the position in 2013, “We had no conditions” for the funds that would ultimately end up in the pockets of the Afghan Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior.

“There has long been a dilemma in American foreign policy between promoting the hard interests of the United States versus promoting the softer values of the United States,” he said. “Conditioning aid is one way you can try to square that circle to meet hard American goals by providing aid, but changing value behavior of the recipient by conditioning that aid on change.”

A recent bombshell report from the New York Times described in excruciating detail how U.S. troops were forced to turn a blind eye to sexual abuses of Afghan boys at the hands of Afghan soldiers that the U.S. was training. That was an outright tragedy, and a perfect example of when pushing back against cultural norms should have been a condition on aid, said Sopko.

“The U.S. abhors the sexual abuse in all forms, and U.S. aid must be conditioned on the Afghan government responding to and prosecuting those who take part in the sexual abuse of another human being,” he said.

“We must never forget that human rights cannot afford to be lost in the fog of war,” he added.

Another side of the conditionality coin was best put in a report that the National Academy of Public Administration issued about the failure of international aid programs in Haiti: “Governments will agree to almost anything; whether they support it is another matter.”

But nonetheless, conditions should be put in place, and they should be kept, in order not to undermine the conditions that were agreed to, said Sopko.

And perhaps most important of all, the conditions that are put in place should be made with specific people’s necks on the line, so a failure to meet the conditions doesn’t fall on the general population.

“If conditionality penalties do not threaten the actual interests of the people agreeing to the conditions, similar reservations could apply to conditional penalties for programs aimed at reducing corruption, improving the judicial systems, or limiting election fraud,” Sopko said. In other words, if nothing in the other side’s personal interest is hanging in the balance, they don’t have any reason to abide by the rules.

“We are at a crossroads in Afghanistan,” he said, noting this weekend’s tragic U.S. bombing of a hospital that killed at least 19 people, including 12 members of the non-profit Doctors Without Borders. The Afghan president has personally told him he wants more conditionality on aid to help his weak government get on track and to root out corruption, he said, but the U.S. needs to be smarter and more forward-thinking about the money it throws at the Taliban problem.

Towards the end of his speech, Sopko quoted the words from an diplomat who served in Afghanistan, who told him when he started the job in 2012: “We not only have to hold the Afghans feet to the fire, we have to hold our own, too.”

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin